What to Do About Venezuela’s Rigged Presidential Election?

Our debate on “abstention” vs. “voting” is broken. We’ve lost sight of the basics: elections give us a chance to organize mass participation in a movement to undermine the regime.

Since the fraudulent National Constituent Assembly (ANC) called for an early presidential election — postponed yesterday to May 20th — a political debate arose, a binary debate with just two options: participate or stay home?

It’s the wrong way to frame it. In my opinion, the real goal is to undermine the regime and boost the chances of constitutional change. The way to do that is by organizing coordinated actions based on non-violence and non-cooperation.

That strategy can be pursued through one of two different tactics: take part in the election with the only purpose of organizing demonstrations, or organize an electoral boycott.

An electoral boycott isn’t the same thing as “not participating.” It doesn’t mean “just stay home.” It means taking election season, and election day, as a time to act, to actively organize around a protest agenda designed to persuade people not to vote.

In the end, a divided opposition is doing neither. The bulk of the opposition decided not to run, in a decision that was supported by different political leaders and civil society organizations. But rather than an active boycott, it seems to be calling for people to do nothing.

Nor is it united. According to the National Electoral Council, by February 27, six candidates had signed up to participate, including President Maduro and the former Lara State Governor Henri Falcón. Even though Falcón considered himself a representative of the opposition, the MUD said forcefully that Falcón is now outside la Unidad, having ignored its single position.

Falcón, however, isn’t leading a protest candidacy. His goal isn’t to galvanize protest against an obviously rigged vote, he’s not leading a nonviolent campaign of non-cooperation. He’s just leading a campaign.

An electoral boycott isn’t the same thing as “not participating.” It means taking the election season as a time to actively organize a protest agenda.

It’s a position that rightly makes people suspicious. There are more than enough reasons to doubt the election will be fair. The clear violation of the Venezuelan Constitution by the fraudulent constituent assembly; the lack of independence of the National Electoral Council; the arbitrary political bans on political parties and leaders of the opposition; the political bias of the Supreme Tribunal; the absence of electoral accountability, and the supra-constitutional powers of the illegitimate constituent assembly: all of these are established. In addition, the international community, from the United States and the European Union to Colombia, Argentina and Peru, have already said that they will not recognize such elections. Even to consider participating in this blatant fraud of an election called by the ANC is outrageous.

I also know the standard retort: voting is a right that defines the democratic spirit of the citizens. Calling for abstention is a denial of democracy. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the opposition promoted abstention and the only result was a single-party Assembly. In July 2017, the opposition promoted another abstention and, again, the result was a single-party ANC. Merely abstaining has solved none of Venezuela’s problems.

Both seem like reasonable arguments. Framed as a question of “voting” or “staying home”, I might agree with each.

But that’s the wrong frame.

In a 2007 paper, J. Tucker (a political scientist at NYU) analyzed the best strategy to confront a rigged election. He finds that telling people to stay home is not the most efficient decision.

According to Tucker, “when a regime commits electoral fraud, an individual’s calculus regarding whether to participate in a protest against the regime can be changed significantly.” Even a rigged vote can create an opportunity to organize public demonstrations that can galvanize protests. You don’t “win” a rigged election by “winning it”, in other words. You win it by using it as a leverage point to galvanize street protests that destabilize the regime.

Tucker then concludes that participating in a fraudulent election is often the better strategy.

Note that Tucker is not talking about a real participation. The idea is not to nominate a candidate with a fabulous electoral program, catchy jingles and wonderful slogans. This will be useless because, let’s not forget, the election is rigged.

But there’s another strategy. According to the recently departed Gene Sharp, an electoral boycott can also turn into a non-violent instrument of protest against fraudulent elections that can undermine the pillars of an authoritarian regime. Again, the key here is that a boycott isn’t about what you don’t do, it’s about what you do. Active non-cooperation to challenge fraudulent elections certainly doesn’t mean staying at home doing nothing. It means raising hell against a system that rigged the voting system.  

The key, whether you call on people to vote or not, is to organize a non-violent movement based on non-cooperation.

Notice that, in Venezuela, we tend to use the word abstención rather than “boycott,” and anyway treat the two as rough synonyms. That’s troubling. Abstention is passive: it’s about not doing something. A true boycott, by contrast, is a huge amount of work: organizing a grassroots movement against rigged elections is an enormous challenge.

The key, whether you call on people to vote or not, is to organize a non-violent movement based on non-cooperation, to undermine the authoritarian regime. As Chenoweth and Stephan: “a critical source of the success of nonviolent resistance is mass participation, which can erode or remove a regime’s main sources of power.”  

In their empirical study, Chenoweth and Stephan show that political changes in authoritarian regimes require, as a basic condition to a successful political change, planning coordinated demonstrations that, through non-violent instruments of non-cooperation, chip away at the regime’s power. Other conditions, like diplomatic pressure, are also important. But without mass participation in domestic action, political change is unlikely.

What are the basic conditions of an electoral boycott that increase the probability of a successful political change? In Blueprint for Revolution, Popovic  — founder of Serbia’s Otpor! movement that overthrew the Milosevic — sums it in a single phrase: “It’s Unity, Stupid!”

In Popovic’s view, unity “is not only one of the most important elements of successful non-violent action but also the hardest to achieve”. Particularly in Venezuela, I add, as we witness with consternation the recent cracks in the opposition.

Back in our Tierra de Gracia, a strategy similar to the mobilization that Otpor! so brilliantly organized will help. But calling on people to stay home passively throughout the campaign and election day will do nothing to undermine the regime, and neither will trying to “win” an election that absolutely everyone can see rigged.

Putting in the hard work it takes to organize mass participation in a non-violent protest movement of non-cooperation just might, though.